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Understanding Seafood Consumption: More Challenging Than It Looks

By: Christine Grillo

In this country, seafood as a whole is more expensive than high-protein foods such as beans, poultry, and red meat. And within the category, there’s quite a range of affordability, with species such as lobster and crabs sporting the largest price tags, and species such as tilapia and catfish priced more moderately. Salmon is considered a high-end “reach” item, whereas shrimp falls somewhere in the middle. So, how does this range in price play out in the eating habits of Americans?

In a new study, “Affordability influences nutritional quality of seafood consumption among income and race/ethnicity groups in the United States,” researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future decided to get some insight into how household income might affect who eats what kind of seafood, a question that is especially relevant given that 90 percent Americans fall short of the dietary recommendations for seafood consumption. To that end, they looked at consumption across three different income groups. But they designed the research to paint an even more nuanced picture by factoring in race and ethnicity in each income group, as well.

The researchers relied on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) data to help them understand consumption by race and ethnicity. NHANES uses four race/ethnicity categories: Asian, Black, Hispanic, and white. (Asian, Black, and white are further specified as being “non-Hispanic.”) Liz Nussbaumer, project director of the Center’s Seafood project and one of the study’s authors, notes that NHANES is a useful tool that works for an array of purposes—but from a scientific perspective, the race/ethnicity categories might benefit from an update.

“It’s no easy task, but it might be time for NHANES to evolve,” says Nussbaumer. “We could learn a lot about how to better tailor dietary recommendations by looking at more race and ethnicity groups beyond what’s currently sampled.”

“We need more representative data for race and ethnic groups,” she said. “If we can better align dietary recommendations and implementation with cultural preferences, we might find that people follow them more closely.”

 “Whenever we conduct research into how different groups of people eat, looking at income or broad categories of race and ethnicity is not enough. If we’re going to make recommendations, we have to look at specific cultures within a category and carefully consider how culture influences diet,” says senior author of the study and CLF director, Martin Bloem.

The researchers go on to suggest that, for example, someone who identifies as Indonesian-American eats very differently than someone who identifies as Japanese-American, but they both fall into the category of “Asian.” Some Indians, who are also considered “Asian,” are vegetarians. Our recommendations for one culture might be very different from recommendations for the other.

Despite the lack of granularity, however, it’s useful to investigate how consumption breaks down across broad demographic categories. It’s a first step in investigating dietary gaps of different American sub-populations.

Salmon is a helpful illustration of this point. The distribution of nutrients varies quite a bit across species: salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which protect cardiovascular health, while shrimp are not. In this study, researchers discovered that among high-income groups, salmon is the most popular fish, and this was true for all four race/ethnicity categories. Author Dave Love, senior scientist on the Center’s Seafood project, posits that in terms of omega-3 fatty acids, one serving of salmon is equivalent to 15 shrimp meals. Less expensive than lobster or crabs, it’s still considered a luxury, or “reach” product.

“Across all race and ethnic groups, as people gain income, they add salmon to their diet,” says Love.

But the authors are concerned that while high-income groups across all ethnicities are eating oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lower-income groups may be lacking those nutrients in their diets. All three income groups in the “Asian” category are meeting dietary recommendations for seafood, but none of the income groups in the other three categories meet the goals. Interestingly, there is a recent study that shows that second and third generation Asians eat less seafood than their parents and grandparents.

Different race and ethnic groups prefer different seafood species. Among low-income whites, shrimp is the most popular. Among low-income Blacks, tilapia is the most popular, and among low-income Hispanics, generic “white fish” is the most popular.

Andrew Thorne-Lyman, a nutrition scientist on the Center’s Seafood project, suggests that certain lower-priced species such as herring and mackerel could be an underutilized opportunity to improve omega-3 fatty acid intake of lower income populations.  “Though these species may be less commonly consumed by certain groups, they represent a good value for money from the perspective of improving omega-3 fatty acid intake” he said.

Overall, a better understanding of cultural preferences and practices might help those in public health to tailor recommendations and design interventions that could help address nutrient gaps and take into consideration affordability and access.

Illustration by Mike Milli, 2022.

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